The XX Factor

Hey Elizabeth Gates, I Can’t Apply Eyeliner Either

Was Elizabeth Gates wrong to mock Sgt. Crowley’s daughter’s inadequate makeup application skills? (More to the point, am I really writing a post about what some woman wrote about a girl’s eyeliner directly after their fathers participated in a hilariously manufactured “conversation” about The Problem of Race in America? Yes I am.)

Jessica asks, in light of the criticism coming at both Gates and Washington Post fashion columnist Robin Givhan, whether it’s ever “okay to write about the sartorial choices of women outside the fashion industry.” I think it’s pretty clear that stifling a particular kind of intelligent clothes-based discussion of women in power-this would apply very much to Givhan, and not at all to Gates-does more harm than good.

The libertarian universalist in me would prefer a frictionless, genderless techno-utopia in which everyone were free to bedeck herself as she chooses. But we don’t live in that world. Sonia Sotomayor could not dress as Batman for her confirmation hearings. She couldn’t even dress like a man; she had the unenviable job of finding a way to conform to acceptable standards of femininity while at the same time signaling authority and competence in her choice of wardrobe. Givhan’s column is interesting because it’s all about negotiating these kinds of cultural constraints, breaking them down and asking how well various Washington figures succeed or fail.

Mostly, they fail. For men on the job Washington and, to a lesser extent, New York, the task of communicating competence begins and ends with a dark, well-tailored suit. Women have many more wardrobe options, and more complex cultural demands to contend with, and thus many more chances to falter. Success is exciting to watch; there’s obviously something about the aesthetic of power that Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice understand that Hillary Clinton does not, so much, understand. I think we’re better off finding ways to articulate that difference than pretending that clothes aren’t a fundamentally important part of the way human beings communicate with one another. Or calling every criticism of a poorly chosen pastel pantsuit an attack on feminism itself.

Photograph of Nancy Pelosi by Chip Somodevilla and photograph of Condoleezza Rice by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.